Liberal Education

Peripheral Visions: Towards a Geoethics of Citizenship

One of the distinguishing features of liberal education in the U.S. has been its commitment to preparing students to be citizens. This aspect of our mission is based on the notion that citizens in a democracy need to have the necessary information and both critical and deliberative reasoning skills in order to make good decisions as members of their societies. As we argued in Globalizing Knowledge, the present conditions of life on our planet have made it impossible to separate being a member of American society from being a citizen of the world (Cornwell and Stoddard 1999).

To emphasize globality is not to say that local relations do not matter. All people live, speak, work, vote, and shop in economic and political localities that, while linked and situated globally, are instantiated and governed locally. The civic mandate of liberal education is to develop in students the deepest knowledge base and the highest degree of critical independence possible to undergird informed, socially responsible judgments as voters, parents, consumers, professionals.

The ideal of global citizenship as a goal of liberal education has been advocated by the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, in two books, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism (1996), and Cultivating Humanity (1997). Illustrated by case studies of various colleges and universities, Cultivating Humanity is an extended argument for the responsibility of liberal education to educate students who are sufficiently experienced in the ways of diverse cultures that they can bracket their own frames of identity and belief enough to be comfortable with multiple perspectives. Nussbaum believes strongly that local or national identities should not be held with blind commitment, but subject to critical, rational evaluation and comparison with the loyalties and needs of others. Part of what we will do in this essay is examine some refinements on Nussbaum's concept of cosmopolitanism, as we make a case for a praxis sufficient to the claims of global citizenship.1

By the title "Peripheral Visions" we mean to invoke a cluster of related commitments. "Visions" alludes on a very concrete level to the need for knowledge on which to base judgments and actions. But it also suggests the more visionary or prophetic side of knowledge, called for as the world becomes both more dispersed and more interconnected, more visible and more mystified through the rapid, global circulation of news, images, commodities, capital, and labor. "Visions" also suggests the perspectival element of knowledge, the way things look completely different from different locations or different points of view.

"Peripheral" carries further the role of multiple perspectives, continuing the metaphor of physical sight, with attention to what happens at the margins. The metaphor functions doubly by alluding to the language of empire and world systems, which map global locations into center or core versus periphery or margins. The overdeveloped, powerful, wealthy nations of the world are the center while the poor, dispossessed, underdeveloped nations are at the periphery of the global capitalist system. Under contemporary globalization, the distinction between core and periphery operates within as well as between nations. For example, Native Americans are an internal periphery within the center that is the United States.

In this essay we will be exploring competing notions of citizenship and belonging. We will be talking about the interdependence of epistemology and ethics, knowledge and responsibility, in practicing the art of citizenship. We will be arguing that the conditions associated with the contemporary form of "globalization" operate according to a logic of dispersal that makes informed judgment both necessary and difficult to achieve. Furthermore, the geo-social location of the knower shapes what appear as facts.

Competing notions of cosmopolitanism

Even the ideal of cosmopolitanism itself looks different from different geo-political locations. Martha Nussbaum's concept of cosmopolitanism is essentially philosophical; we will label it "ethical cosmopolitanism." It represents what the philosopher Immanuel Kant would call a "Regulative Ideal," a governing principle that holds up an absolute standard of the good, but at the same time recognizes that this can only be an [ideal], an aspiration never achieved.

For Nussbaum, a cosmopolitan subjectivity would be one that sees a world full of equally valuable human persons, all of whom have a claim on our sense of moral obligations. This is in large part a question of knowing, of knowing that these people exist around the world and knowing that we should care about whether they are starving or being exploited. But once we become fully aware of their value and their existence, we need to act at least to influence political policies that have an impact on people's lives. Most importantly we should not be able to dismiss the deaths or sufferings of those halfway around the globe as insignificant and unrelated to us. Nussbaum believes that education and literature are means to help us imagine the realities of distant peoples, but she also recognizes that we will feel stronger responsibility for those closest to us.

While Nussbaum's concept of cosmopolitanism should apply equally to all people, it is particularly focused on the mindset of Americans, who as a people belong to an incredibly uncontested global power and who as a whole enjoy an immensely high standard of living. Americans in general are known for their ignorance of geography, the history of those outside the West, foreign languages, and the events occurring in distant countries. And American mainstream news reports are notoriously self-centered, focusing almost all stories around what the potential impact of an event is on the U.S. Nussbaum believes higher education needs to counter American nationalism by providing students with an ideal of cosmopolitanism that will help them liberate themselves from the kind of patriotism that says "My country, right or wrong." Since Nussbaum sparked a debate over cosmopolitanism in For Love of Country, a rich body of scholarship has arisen on the subject. Before discussing the kind of epistemology necessary for global citizenship, we will summarize a few major permutations on Nussbaum's philosophical approach.

One modification on Nussbaum's view is described by Anthony Appiah as "rooted cosmopolitanism." Appiah addresses the idealistic and abstract aspects of Nussbaum's view to take account of the fact that we each have a location in the world, a place, a family, a region, a nation-state. We can exercise a cosmopolitan perspective only from that location. In some sense rootedness is the very antithesis of Nussbaum's neo-Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism. The Stoics believed that they should not be at home in Rome or their place of birth, but be literally citizens of the world. Their identification with their own country should be loosened up to the point that it would be harmonious with their imagined relation to all other locations in the world. In thinking about rooted cosmopolitanism, it is important to understand location as not merely spatial, but also socio-political and historical.

Thus, two American citizens, living in Manhattan and sharing the same general location as Americans and New Yorkers, may bring entirely different identities and histories to their views on global events. For example, a white stockbroker of English descent and a Mexican-American teacher may share the same reactions to the attacks on the World Trade towers, but they may have very different attitudes toward U.S. immigration policies following 9/11. The roots of these two people are both in New York in a literal sense, but in another sense they diverge through very different historical relations to the U.S. nation-state.

With crucial attention to class, Homi Bhabha brings a postcolonial perspective to bear on cosmopolitanism. He advocates neither the universalist cosmopolitanism of Nussbaum nor the rooted cosmopolitanism of Appiah, but rather a "vernacular cosmopolitanism" that sees from the margins, from the peripheries of global centers of power and wealth. Bhabha wants to see the world from the bottom up, from the vantage point of peripheries. And he sees the creation of a cosmopolitan episteme, or set of knowledges that construct the world for us, not as an ongoing process of selecting what is cool and interesting from all the world's traditions, but rather as a montage of overlapping perspectives, experiences, and cultures brought into contact by global migrations of refugees, guest workers, and other subaltern populations. Bhabha's version of cosmopolitanism replaces the Enlightenment universalism of Nussbaum's version with a model of overlapping consensus.

Thus writers like Appiah and Bhabha revise Nussbaum's moral imperative for cosmopolitanism with attention to the non-elite travelers of the world. These are migrants and travelers who enter an enlarged sense of consciousness about how one can be human in the world not through all-expense-paid business trips or study abroad or international conferences, but, rather, through the struggle to survive and find a workable life, people who have to give up a great deal to gain their enlarged grasp of humanity's many forms of being-in-the-world, and who perhaps through their struggles may develop a greater sense of compassion for the sufferings of others.

While we have been sketching various alternative cosmopolitanisms based on location and class, there are a whole other set of concerns about cosmopolitanism that are more practical and structural (see Cheah and Robbins 1998). These ask whether there can be global citizenship if there is no global society, no mechanisms for global governance? As an advocate for the view that national sovereignty has broken down in many ways, recognizing that transnational corporations are not contained by national laws, David Held (1997) writes a great deal about a more concrete vision of global governance that we might call constitutional or legal cosmopolitanism. While Held's advocacy for a transnational set of institutions is fundamentally based on the same philosophical humanism as Nussbaum's, a commitment to social justice for all regardless of national citizenship, he is concerned about the practical execution of global governance. He is an advocate for institutions like the International Criminal Court. Interestingly, the U.S. government's refusal to sign onto the ICC is based on the same argument that Held uses in support of the court--that it places American citizens on a level playing field with those of other nations, holding U.S. citizens to the same law as all other citizens.

Epistemic challenges of globalization

Citizens of any polity have an obligation to assert their views, to influence their representatives in their legislative actions. Those of us who are U.S. citizens have an especially strong responsibility because we live in a country that has extraordinary, almost unlimited global power, wealth, and technological potential. The main institution that is supposed to inform us is the free press--newspapers, magazines, TV, the radio, the Internet. But even setting aside the problems of corporate ownership of the media, the dispersal of globalized phenomena along with the massive availability of information presents dramatically new kinds of epistemological challenges for the potential critical thinker and responsible citizen.

Under the methods of reasoning that prevailed in Western culture from the seventeenth- century scientific revolution through at least the mid-twentieth century, one would seek factual knowledge by seeking to understand a chain of causes and effects. Furthermore, spatial location was understood as relatively static and bounded. But with contemporary globalization, the mechanistic chain of causes and effects has become so dispersed that it is extremely difficult to isolate single causes.

To illustrate what globalization means for achieving the kind of knowledge needed for informed decision making, we want to contrast briefly the often-compared attacks on Pearl Harbor and September 11. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the context was well-known: Japan was involved in an imperialist war and now was attacking U.S. ships docked at its colonial possession in the Pacific. Ethical and political judgments must be based on knowledge of the relevant situation, and in the case of Pearl Harbor, the facts were reasonably clear. The ethical response entailed by the facts still admitted of different opinions; for example, those Americans committed to pacifism might object to retaliation. But for those who believed that self-defense was in order, the enemy was a clearly defined nation-state, Japan, the agent in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The war took on a global dimension because Japan was allied with Germany in Europe, pursuing its own aggressive war, internally against Jews and other marginal groups, and externally against other nation-states. The actors were all nation-states with leaders and capitals and armed forces that could be located on maps.

As is well-known, the situation after September 11 was entirely different. It was a network of individuals that attacked the United States, not a locatable state. It was not necessarily clear that it was an attack on the U.S. as a state. The symbolism of the World Trade Center was such that the attack could have been aimed at global capitalism, epitomized by the U.S. but not identical with it. The attack on the Pentagon was more suggestive of an attack on the U.S. as a military power. So President Bush declared war not on a nation-state, but on an abstract concept, "terror."2 Al-Qaeda is not the kind of so-called terrorist organization that the world has seen throughout the twentieth century, like the IRA or the PLO, groups fighting for spatially located projects of national liberation, nations fighting to gain a state. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, is a loose network of cells, supposedly located in ninety-four out of the approximately 200 countries in the world, including the U.S.

Networks are the paradigm used by Manuel Castells (2000) to represent globalization and global processes. Like computer networks, they operate through dispersed connections, in what we call metaphorically "cyberspace." They pass bits of information around the world instantaneously and in many directions at once. While each Web page is located on a server with a definite spatio-temporal location, confiscating the server will not recapture information that has already circulated around the world and been downloaded and saved in multiple places. Al-Qaeda, like these electronic networks, exemplifies transnational dispersal, paralleling the labor and production processes used in global capitalism and making good use of global information systems, global travel networks, and global financial systems.

The epistemic challenges presented by this network are immense, and, unfortunately, inertia tends to foster a reshaping of the situation into a scenario from the past, a binary way of thinking with which people are comfortable. There is a strong temptation in the government and in some theorists to try to place Al-Qaeda into the kind of binary dynamic that governed the Cold War. Written prior to the hijackings, Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations essentially paves the way for a new binary world order made up of us and them, the West versus the Muslim world. The conflict is characterized as one of culture rather than political and economic systems, but informing it is the old orientalist division of the world into West and East: progress, technology, reason, liberal governance by law in the West and exoticism, irrationality, sensuality, autocracy, authoritarian governance in the East.

In contrast to these tendencies to revert to binary thinking, a cosmopolitan citizen has to maintain a commitment to complexity, to consulting multiple perspectives. While there is an overwhelming amount of information available from the Internet and the news media, sorting through it has become a daunting challenge, made even more complex by the fact that all sources are located and perspectival. Thus after the initial outpourings of sympathy from around the world, it has become increasingly clear that neither September 11 nor the war on Iraq looks like the same thing to people in different spatial locations, from different power positions in the world, with different kinds of relations to the U.S. and its projects for the world. We want to suggest that multi-perspectivalism assumes that all knowers are situated; globalization is a complex of phenomena each of which looks very different depending on one's point of view--here meant very literally as the geo-political location of the knower.

On ethics and epistemology

The debates on citizenship and cosmopolitanism raise fundamental questions on the relation between epistemology and ethics, between facts and values, between narratives of what is the case and moral evaluation of responsibility, culpability, and agency.

By "peripheral visions" we mean to suggest not that alternative views need to be seen as competing, each vying for the status of achieving hegemony as the single truth, but that the multiplicity of points of view makes truth a collaborative project. As Plato, Nietzsche, Marx, Fanon, Foucault, Spivak and others have noted, power interacts with knowledge to bolster the dominant narrative accepted in a particular time and place as truth. In the era of global capitalism, the network of Western media, markets, and policy forcefully speaks one narrative. By invoking peripheral visions, we are advocating an epistemology that seeks out narratives generated from other points of view. We are urging an epistemology that pays special attention to stories told from the margins, because in the U.S. the volume of the dominant narrative is turned up so high, one has to listen with very focused attention to hear other voices.

What are we to do with the resulting multiplicity of narratives? There will be two kinds of problems. First, there will be problems of contradiction. Stories will be told of the same event, and employing the same explanatory framework, that meet head-on in their claims--for example, whether Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat to the United States. Another example is the debates over global warming. For a while, scientists were looking at the same sets of data, and some saw conclusive evidence of global warming while others denied this conclusion. We are suggesting that power and interests intercede in the interpretive act; the data do not speak their own conclusion. The problem is not necessarily one of dishonesty. Rather, power and interests intervene in the act of seeing, such that differently situated observers actually see different realities.

Second, there will be problems of incommensurability. When accounts are incommensurable, it is not that they disagree, but that the explanatory frameworks are so utterly different that they can't be reconciled. For example, if one scrutinizes the concept of human rights, it turns out to contain some very basic assumptions about the metaphysics of the person. If a Christian and a Confucian cannot find common ground about human rights, it is not because their beliefs clash, but that they slide right past one another. Difference in such cases is not disagreement, at least on the surface issue; points of view that are incommensurable are different in the very frameworks of explanation.

A methodology for cosmopolitan judgment

How does one begin to circumvent the dilemmas of relativism on the one hand and a hegemonic domination masquerading as universalism on the other hand? Clearly, the first step is gathering as much information as possible. If one is dealing with political situations like the conflict in the Middle East or the treatment of women in Islam where the flow of information to the U.S. is heavily skewed by U.S. interests and cultural biases, this is a gargantuan task in and of itself. Nonetheless, in global debates over human rights, the notion of "overlapping consensus" has emerged as an alternative to universalism or relativism. This consensus avoids epistemological and metaphysical rationales and works toward pragmatic agreements about what kinds of rights inhere in humanity as such, or more realistically, which kinds of abuses will not be tolerated.

By a geoethics of citizenship we are suggesting a project of seeking understanding quite literally through the triangulation of different points of view.3 We want to use a GPS, short for Global Positioning System, as a model for this methodology. A GPS is a piece of technology that locates a place on earth, literally plotting its coordinates by receiving signals from orbiting satellites. It is used by hikers and sailors for navigation. It is available in rental cars now for street navigation. A GPS is not reliable when it is trying to position one on the globe through information from only one satellite. In fact, a GPS determines one's position by reconciling information from multiple sources; it works on an epistemology of triangulation. The more satellites used as sources of information, the more certain the location is. This serves as a model for the way one needs to collect perspectives from differently situated knowers and citizens around the world in order to be able to make informed judgments, to have a sufficient basis for knowledge.

The relevance of this locating device for geo-citizens, particularly those who live in the more powerful nations, is that they need to perceive their socio-political locations as others see them. This builds on the insight of Edward Said in Orientalism (1985) that the West has typically constructed itself as perceiving subject with the East as object, on the other side of an absolute divide. The East, or the Other, in multicultural discourses, is the reified projection of all that the subject is not. The two are defined relationally by what the West wants to see itself as. Those who are the knowers need to see themselves also as the known. And this goes beyond a kind of self-reflexivity to reception of others' perceptions of oneself as agent and subject. But it also goes beyond the model of dialogue between two subjects. Many of the most intransigent conflicts in the world are between two nations, like Palestine and Israel. They have incommensurate narratives of their history. On the GPS model, they need many more perspectives, both from within their own nations and from without.

Geocitizens need to work in the same way. They cannot be confident that they are on solid ground if they are taking their information from only one or even two perspectives. They need to seek points of view globally; hence, critical thinking becomes the project of triangulating the sources, clearly identifying the contradictions and incommensurabilities, building a reconciled narrative to the extent possible. This last point is key. The Internet and cable/satellite television offer different points of view on shows like Crossfire, but those are different points of view screaming past each other, or piling up many voices as personal opinions, while the voice of authority becomes more and more monolithic. They are not trying to piece together and layer multiple perspectives toward some kind of agreed upon description of phenomena.

The chief epistemological virtue here is the capacity to listen for and across differences. Second in line is a disposition not to meet differences with a desire to win, to have one's own point of view triumph over others, but instead to meet differences as a project, a sign that power and point of view are likely in play. Intercultural communication skills emerge by this analysis not simply as useful in getting by in a diverse world, but as capacities essential to build a complex account of what is the case and what it is important to do. Filling out the meaning of responsible global citizenship is necessarily a collaborative process, and the more points of view that are brought into triangulation, the more confidence one can have about where one is standing.


The premise of this essay is that being a patriotic American entails being a citizen of the world. If one supports the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it would be difficult to defend the position that all Americans are entitled to freedom and equality, while non-Americans are not. Being a cosmopolitan entails knowing how the actions of one's government and oneself affect the global balance of wealth, power, and quality of life. It means pursuing intercultural skills and the capacity to imagine multiple points of reference in assessing a situation. Finding those triangulated reference points is a huge challenge, but there is no other alternative.

Ultimately, this need for multiple perspectives is the most basic argument for diversity in liberal education. One step in this direction is teaching a curriculum that represents diverse points of view, but that is not enough. Precisely because the world looks different from different vantage points, the students and faculty who comprise a campus need to have different life experiences and different social locations that they can bring to the table in a collaborative project of creating knowledge, ultimately forming an "overlapping consensus" on ethics of global citizenship.

Eve Walsh Stoddard is professor of English and chair of the global studies department, and Grant H. Cornwell is vice president of the university and dean of academic affairs at St. Lawrence University.


  1. The ideas in this essay have evolved out of collaborations with colleagues, within and beyond the borders of the U.S. We want to acknowledge the funders and thank the participants in St. Lawrence's Ford Foundation Crossing Borders project, Interconnecting Diasporas: Globalizing Area Studies, and in the AAC&U FIPSE grant, Liberal Education and Global Citizenship: The Arts of Democracy.
  2. For an excellent discussion of this mobile concept of war, see Ross Glover's essay in Collateral Language, edited by John Collins and Ross Glover, 2002.
  3. In the field of education, researchers use a method they also call "triangulation." It is most often defined as combining several different research methods in one study, for example, focus groups, surveys, and interviews, in order to avoid the pitfalls of any one method, but it has been expanded to include other ways of incorporating multiple sets of data. While it similarly seeks to put together multiple sets of data, it is not related to the kinds of socio-cultural-geographical kinds of location we are concerned with here. Our notion of triangulation is posited on the claim that events and facts in the world look radically different when viewed from different socio-political or cultural or gendered locations. This means that even from a particular house, say in Saudi Arabia, the embedded knowledge and the perspectives of the male head of household, his daughter, and his chauffeur, may be as different and even irreconcilable from each other as from those of their counterparts in Missouri.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1996. Cosmopolitan patriots. In Martha Nussbaum. For love of country, Joshua Cohen, ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bhabha, Homi. 2001. Unsatisfied: Notes on vernacular cosmopolitanism. In Gregory Castle, ed. Postcolonial discourses: An anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, Manuel. 2000. The network society. In David Held and Anthony McGrew, eds. The global transformations reader. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cheah, Pheng and Bruce Robbins, eds. 1998. Cosmopolitics: Thinking and feeling beyond the nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Collins, John and Ross Glover, eds. 2002. Collateral language: A user's guide to America's new war. New York: NYU Press.

Cornwell, Grant and Eve Walsh Stoddard. 1999. Globalizing knowledge: Connecting international and intercultural studies. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Held, David. 1997. Cosmopolitan democracy and the global order: A new agenda. In James Bohman and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann, eds. Perpetual peace: Essays on Kant's cosmopolitan ideal. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Huntington, Samuel. 1996.The clash of civilizations. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Kant, Immanuel. 1965. The critique of pure reason. Norman Kemp Smith, ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1996. For love of country: Debating the limits of patriotism. Joshua Cohen, ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

Said, Edward. 1985. Orientalism. London: Penguin Press.

U.S.A. Patriot Act.

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